Closing the Book

A sermon presented by Deb Bodeau at First Parish Unitarian-Universalist of Bedford, Massachusetts on 26 September 1999

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning

“We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Alcoholics Anonymous, Steps 4, 8, and 9.
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Closing Time by Semisonic

Lighting of the Chalice

We kindle this flame to remind ourselves of the spark of the Divine in each of us, of the light of truth we seek, and of the warmth of community we create together.

Opening Words

Last week, we closed with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” In concert, Arlo Guthrie likes to tell story of John Newton, the composer of that song. John Newton was the captain of an English slave ship. On one particular trip, something happened to Newton as he looked around at the human captives. He turned the ship around, set the Africans free, and returned to England to write spirituals. Our opening words are Guthrie’s comment on that story:
“It’s never too late to turn around. People change themselves and the world everyday.”

Welcome and Announcements

Welcome to First Parish in Bedford. This congregation has a tradition of lay-led services. I’m Deb Bodeau, and I have the privilege of giving the first such service in our freshly redone sanctuary. Much of the building remains in disarray; we don’t have hot water, the elevator is not working, and the doors at the chancel end of the sanctuary are still locked – all egress is through the back. If you’re visiting and would like to get more information or sign up for our newsletter, please see one of the ushers. Please join us for coffee and conversation upstairs after the service.

Reading: from Jewish Renewal by Michael Lerner

In Unitarian Universalism, we draw inspiration from many religious traditions – from their practices, from their stories, histories, and myths, and from the ways in which they live and evolve. Our first reading is from Michael Lerner’s book, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. In discussing the Days of Awe, which ended this past Monday, Lerner says:

“Built into the High Holy Days is a deep psychological wisdom that can and should be reclaimed. In the ten days of repentance that extend from the first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, we may engage in a mass psychological process, as we participate in an individual and collective reassessment of our lives.

“Remembering is step one – looking at what we have done and what we have become during the past year. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

“The second step is to measure what we have done and what we have become against our highest visions of who we should and could be. This step is facilitated when we collectively, through prayer, reaffirm the vision of our possibilities  what we could be individually and together).

“The third step is called teshuvah or repentance. This does not mean merely a recommitment to “good values” that are so abstract that they function only to make us feel good when we espouse them. Real teshuvah means determining in considerable detail exactly what we are going to do differently in our lives, taking into account the things that will likely throw us off or undermine our resolve. This requires more than making just an inner resolve about our intentions – it requires figuring out concretely how the things that tend to undermine our resolve or deflect us from making the changes we want to make can be handled. Teshuvah is not a series of New Year’s resolutions, but is instead a serious plan of action based on the deepest and most searching self-scrutiny.”


One tradition from the Days of Awe is the practice of tashlich. This practice is traced to a line in the Book of Michah:

“And You will cast into the depths of the sea all their sins;
You will show kindness to Jacob and mercy to Abraham,
As You did promise to our fathers of old.”

Jewish communities have for many generations gathered on the First Day of Rosh HaShanah at bodies of water and recited the Tashlich Prayer, to symbolize the wish to get rid of sins, and to be forgiven. I found a number of Web sites humorously addressing the problem of performing tashlich in places like Jerusalem, where bodies of water are not to be found. This is a challenge because, in its most concrete form, the practice involves putting bread crumbs in one’s pockets and then emptying one’s pockets into the water to give tangible expression to the desire to be free of one’s sins.
Our offering will now be received.

Responsive Reading: #637 A Litany of Atonement

Non-Reading: Doug Muder

In a few minutes Deb is going to talk about “closing the book” on a period of time. That phrase comes from the Jewish image of God maintaining a Book of the Year, and it sounds very poetic and metaphoric, because nobody has a literal book that they close when a period of time is over. [hold up book] Except us, of course. This is our secret book, and I can show it to you, but I can’t read to you from it, because only Deb and I are allowed to know what’s in it.

Let me tell you how things come to be written in this book.

Once or twice a week, Deb and I get together and have a conversation that we call a “rollback”. In a rollback, we tell each other the story of what’s been going on in our lives lately. We tell the story backwards: we start with right now, and then talk about what happened before that, and then about what happened before that, and so on, until we get back to the last rollback. Then we take a small piece of paper, and each one of us writes down a few short lines about what we think is important to remember from this period of time.

Once a month, as close to the New Moon as is practical for us, we do a special ritual where we go back through these notes from the rollbacks, until we get back to the last New Moon ritual. And if there’s anything in those notes that is still hot, anything that’s still hanging unresolved between us, that’s the time to deal with it. And then we take out this book and write down what was important about this month – things that happened, things we learned, agreements we came to. And then we burn the rollback notes, because there’s no need for them now. The month they represent is over.

That’s been our practice for the last 11 years.


In the reading, Lerner translates teshuvah as “repentance”. Literally, it means “turning”, and is used in the sense of turning back from error or temptation, of “returning inwardly to the divine Source.” Let us pause for a moment to remember that each of us is a vessel for the divine spark, to turn our awareness inward, to seek that spark, to rejoice in it, and to let it shine forth.


[Some ideas didn’t fit into the sermon; others arose during discussion during the “talkback” following the service. Some follow-on is given in the “Afterthoughts” section.]

One of the motivating stories for the Days of Awe, from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, is that at that time, God closes the book on the past year, opens the book of the new year, writes in it, and seals it. As Doug indicated in his description of our monthly practice, the image of “closing the book” has a strong personal meaning. Our practice has taught us a great deal about the benefits of remembering, taking stock, making atonement, achieving reconciliation. It has enabled us to “close the book” on difficult periods, and start new chapters of our lives more gracefully, unencumbered by the baggage of the past. But we’ve also learned a lot about the obstacles to “closing the book” on a period, to making amends. I’ll talk first about the benefits, then about the strategies we’ve found for overcoming – or at least, working around – those obstacles.

One benefit is that we learn from our experiences. “Doesn’t everyone?” you ask. But our rollback practice taught me to see patterns – of behavior, of emotional reactions, of holding to beliefs about how the world should work – that had persisted from childhood or adolescence, undisturbed by experiences that threw them into doubt or revealed them as dysfunctional. For example, I came to recognize ways that I responded to anticipated failure by hurting myself – getting upset, not sleeping, not eating right – both to pre-empt punishment and to provide an explanatory excuse for the failure

The specific remembering technique we use, moving back in time rather than forward, helps us to see patterns that are otherwise invisible. When I roll back, I often get caught up in explaining and justifying why I did certain things, reliving some of the emotions of the situation being remembered, or trying to rewrite the script. Those moments – when the tape starts running forward rather than backward, when a new tape starts running – are clues. They’re clues to my hidden assumptions about how the world should work, how I ought to be, how I expect others to treat me. Those “gotcha” moments that I have trouble letting go of help me to debug my hidden assumptions and automatic reactions.

A second benefit of our practice is getting rid of unwanted baggage. Each month, we strive to reach the point where we’ve learned as much as we can learn, we’ve acknowledged the hurts we’ve suffered or inflicted, we’ve looked for ways we can make amends or prevent the hurts from being repeated, we’ve squeezed as much juice from the events of the month as we can, and we’re just ready to be done with the month. At that point, we can cut our ties with the “gotcha” moments, sending them up in smoke. We can close the book on the past month, because we’ve gotten as much as we can hope to get from the experience of that month.

In our practice, closing the book on a period doesn’t mean declaring it unimportant or irrelevant, or setting it aside never to be considered again. Obviously, the events of one month might have consequences that play out over a long time. Learning from experience sometimes means committing to changes that phase in slowly, haltingly, experimentally. But closing the book on a period means letting go of the compulsion to relive its events, tinkering with the memories in the vain attempt to make them “right” or “better”. This frees up a surprising amount of psychic energy. For example, during my cancer treatment, I was free of the compulsion to relive the moment of diagnosis. I’ve since learned that that’s rare; the usual pattern is to retain one’s upset at how the news was given (as if there were a congenial way), to relive this or that negative interaction with a caregiver or bureaucrat, to relive the memory in an unconscious attempt to heal it. The rollback practice gave me a way to let it go.

A third benefit is that of taking stock. Each month, we reconcile the vision of how we want life to be with our reconstruction of how it actually has been. We try to understand why we failed to meet our goals, to achieve our ideals. Taking stock isn’t a matter of passing judgment or assigning a grade; it’s more like tasting the stew, testing the recipe we tried last month. Then we can look ahead. We restate our goals, or redefine our strategies for achieving them, to accommodate reality as we now understand it. Each month, we state our intentions for the coming month, then seal the book.

The greatest benefit, but the one that’s hardest to describe, is that we become a composite consciousness, a community of two. In preparing to close the book each month, we reconcile our individual stories. We construct a common story. In planning activities that involve or affect us as a unit, we refer to that common story: to what it says about our experience and abilities, our needs and resources, our weaknesses and strengths, our ideals and goals. Having a common story enables us to take individual actions that support our common good.

By now, you might be wondering whether you’d benefit from having your own book-closing practice. You might be trying on our practice and judging how well it fits, considering the practice of teshuvah, thinking about the self-assessment and amends-making process as expressed in Twelve-Step programs. If you do that thought experiment, you’ll probably quickly start thinking of reasons it can’t work. I’ll focus on three major obstacles Doug and I have faced: one practical, one political, and one psychological.

The practical obstacle is: when to do it, how to do it, and how to maintain commitment to the process?

In the Twelve Steps, “when” is determined by one’s progress in the program; “how” is provided by the program and by the body of experience and literature that has grown up around it. Commitment is driven by the urgent desire to save one’s own life, to rise after hitting bottom. In Judaism, “when” is built into the calendar and “how” is part of the tradition. Regarding commitment, Lerner says:

“For those who take it seriously, the pressure is on, the fate of the next year is going to be written in the Book of Life and then it will be sealed, the gates of heaven are going to shut at the last service on Yom Kippur (Ne’ilah), and so the time to make the change is now, not in some indefinite future. This creates a psychological and spiritual immediacy that forces the individual to take the process much more to heart, to avoid the stalling that so often interferes with progress.”

Those of us who are not Jewish might feel some envy that the tradition provides such a powerful demand to remember and atone, to close the book on the past year. Lacking that demand from our tradition, we must create it for ourselves. The initial motivation behind the rollback practice was a series of months crammed so full of worthwhile events that Doug and I couldn’t enjoy any of them; we wanted to learn from our mistakes so we could plan our lives better. Our initial focus was future-oriented. But after a while, the practice of reviewing the recent past took precedence. It became like brushing our teeth. Now, if we have to put off a rollback for a few days, we sense the buildup of psychic plaque, and it tastes awful. Continuing commitment follows naturally from the experience of positive benefits.

With respect to “when”, our solution has been to be opportunistic – using the New Moon to schedule the major rollbacks, seizing uncommitted times like long drives or plane trips for the every-few-days rollbacks. When we do a rollback, we get back to every argument, every hurt, every promise unfulfilled or broken. Procrastination or forgetting becomes very tempting. Thus, we found that the scheduling has to be automatic, especially when beginning such a practice, because resistance is highest precisely when the need is greatest. It’s easy to sign up for an atonement process when you’re pretty sure you don’t have anything major to atone for. An every-now-and-then process would have lasted until there was a major issue to deal with.

Regarding “how”, I have to emphasize that our practice is tailored to us: it relies on a fairly even match in our levels of self-awareness, and our respective abilities to describe events and express emotions. There is no “one-size-fits-all” practice for remembering, taking stock, or making amends. You can find pointers in many places: the recovery literature, articles on teshuvah, descriptions of life review processes in such authors as Carlos Castaneda and Stephen Levine.

So that’s the practical obstacle. The next is political.

By a political obstacle, I mean one that relates to power – power within the society of my own mind, power in my marriage, power in the larger community. As individuals and in community, we tell stories. We tell stories of who we are, what we’ve done or might do, what matters or doesn’t matter, how the world works. Our stories may not completely define us as persons; they may not totally determine the roles we play, the relationships we enter, or the things we do; but they do have a very strong influence on us. The power to construct, change, or influence our stories is thus power over our lives.

One benefit of traditional monotheism is that God serves as the ultimate authority, the One True Author, the Master Narrator. Thus, teshuvah can be a reconciliation of the stories individuals and communities tell with the divine narrative. The pain of acknowledging failures, omissions, and injuries committed in the course of the year is outweighed by the satisfaction of re-aligning with the divine will, of having individual and community stories fit into the larger – and immortal – story of creation.

Inconveniently, Doug and I don’t believe in God as Master Narrator. Lacking outside authority, we struggled repeatedly with the issue of: Whose story will win? Who was right, who was wrong, who was inconsiderate, who was over-sensitive, who was principled, whose values are better, whose ideals merit investing energy? Since the story of the past predicts and largely determines the future, these were major power struggles.

We struggled with this until we realized it’s not a problem to solve. It’s a challenge to our creativity and a call to sacrifice. We realized that if we don’t have a Master Narrator, we can’t believe that there’s One True Story. We are co-authors of our common story. That story has to be consistent with our experience, to include as much of what each of us values as possible, to provide a basis for shared experience and common action. It has to feel not only true but also inspiring.

A story is a finite construction, limited by time and narrative conventions. By its nature, any story must omit details and perspectives of real or potential value to someone. If we’re going to have a common story, we each have to sacrifice pieces of our individual stories. We each have to take stock of our values and concerns, assessing them in relation to one another, acknowledging inconsistencies and priorities. We can’t just say “it all matters; it all has to fit.” This is a real and frequently painful sacrifice. But the joy and satisfaction we take in being a community-of-two more than justifies the sacrifice. That experience of community is magnetic; it pulls me back from self-serving divergence from our shared values.

The psychological obstacle is the instinct to protect one’s ego. We all have a natural aversion to confronting our inadequacies, our failures, and the hurts we’ve caused. We have a self-protective tendency to rationalize or justify our behavior, to deny pain, even – superstitiously or to avoid setting the bar higher – to downplay joys and triumphs.

Two forms of denial I’ve tripped across repeatedly are denial of hurts I’ve caused, and denial of hurts I’ve experienced. I’m not a war criminal; I’m not a drug trafficker or terrorist; I haven’t done anything all that bad. Like all good rationalizations, this contains a germ of truth. But the rollbacks have shown me how I suffer repeatedly from the shock of perceiving the distance between the world as I thought it was and the world as it is. I’ve seen how much effort it takes to bring my description of the world back into alignment with the world as it is. I create this distance for others whenever I break a commitment, whenever I lead someone to expect the world to be some way, and then fail to follow up. By breaking commitments to others, I injure them.

Promises, commitments, plans, expectations are building blocks we use to construct the future. Sometimes I make commitments based more on wishful thinking about what will be possible than on realistic assessments. That’s a mental habit that the rollback practice has helped me to recognize and to some extent break. But the fulfillment of realistic commitments isn’t completely under our control, and the world will break some of our promises for us. The possibility of making amends can help us to acknowledge this.

I also deny experiences of hurt. It hurts to fall short of my ideals. I can distance myself from that hurt by claiming my standards are too high, but that distances me from my ideals as well. I experience hurt from interactions with other people. When I deny that pain, I set myself up to retaliate unconsciously, or to distance myself from others.

From personal experience, I can attest that few things are as painful as having my denial broken through. I’ve experienced the reactions of anger, outrage, composed rationalization, and self-justification, as well as of shame, humiliation, hurting myself to block off the experience of the pain I’ve caused another. And I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of the emphasis on atonement in the Jewish tradition, of making amends in Twelve-Step programs. In the context of atonement, of making amends, the reactions I mentioned are revealed as self-indulgent; they shouldn’t be repressed, but they’re not worth dwelling on. They’re simply not the point.

I’ve talked about the benefits of a practice of remembering, taking stock, making atonement, seeking reconciliation. Such a practice can occur on many scales: on an individual basis, in a family, in a community, in a nation, in the community of nations. It’s an unfortunate source of cynicism that attempts to implement such a practice on the larger scales are often subverted by the forces of denial, which want to say, “we declare that piece of history to be over; everybody who’s still hurting should shut up, since their pain is evidence that they’ve failed at reconciliation.” [As they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail “Let’s not bicker about who killed who.”] But on smaller scales, we can overcome denial: Doug’s and my rollback practice, teshuvah traditions in Judaism, the assessment and amends steps in Twelve-Step programs provide examples, proofs-of-concept that such a practice can work.

I’ve also discussed a few of the obstacles to a periodic or ongoing atonement process. There are others. Lots of others. But in my experience, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Participation in a Twelve-Step program is driven by personal need; teshuvah is tied to the annual cycle; our rollbacks are tied to the New Moon. But the process of “closing the book” on a period can also be triggered by an event or situation. For our church community, the completion of the building construction could be such an event.  The new book is opening, but the old book is not fully closed yet. As a community, and as individuals in community, we have an opportunity to remember, to reflect, to set aside denial and acknowledge hurts caused or received, to make amends, to seek reconciliation, to renew our vision of what this community is about, to construct a shared story, and to use that story to bring our visions into reality. Such an opportunity is rare and precious. I pray that we use it wisely.

Closing Words

Our closing words are from Steven Levine, A Year to Live:

“We make peace with our lives one image at a time. … We imagine that death is going to do our work for us and set us free. It will not. … Death will free us from the body, but we will have to walk the rest of the way on our own.
“So let us put down our baggage and die now to the tedious dilemmas of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. Let us thank our lovers and friends, bow to our teachers, and embrace our trembling fears.
“Take a breath directly into the heart, the first breath, the breath of a new life unimpeded by the last.”

Abstract for The Parishioner

September 26, “Closing the Book”, Deb Bodeau
One of the  motivating stories for the Days of Awe, from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, is that at that time, God closes the book on the past year, opens the book of the new year, writes in it, and seals it. By taking time to remember, take stock, and atone, we can “close the book” on a period of time, and enable a new period to start gracefully, unencumbered by the baggage of the past. In this service, I describe our household practice of “closing the book”, some of the obstacles we’ve encountered, and lessons we’ve learned.


We’re sometimes asked whether burning the pieces of paper has an overtone of anger or rejection. Certainly, that is the common social interpretation for burning letters from someone. But burning means something different in our practice. First, we keep the information that matters, in our book. So by burning the notes, we’re only destroying temporary storage. Second and more importantly, burning is a symbolic release of stored-up energy. Our intention in burning the notes is to release the energy we bound up in the events of the past month, to release our emotional attachments to those events, and to make that bound-up energy once again accessible to us.  

The recovery literature provides a wealth of insight on the obstacles to recognizing and accepting one’s flaws, and on the practical issues related to making amends. Regarding Step 8, Al-Anon’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions states:

“There was yet one more way [to make amends]: To teach ourselves to be aware of others’ needs, by being compassionate when they hurt, allowing them to build self-esteem and sharing our strength with them.”

Regarding Step 9, the value of a simple apology is noted, but

“The problem becomes more difficult when something we did or said resulted in serious, perhaps irreversible problems for others. These unkindnesses are harder to acknowledge, even after we bring them to the surface of our minds; however, it is necessary to our own peace of mind to review exactly what we did that caused the damage.”

“We also made amends when we showed interest in another’s well-being, activities and achievements. Thoughtful courtesies suggested a basic change in our attitudes and the way we behaved toward others. More gentleness, tolerance and acceptance, along with our own sense of dignity, did much to restore inner harmony.

“In some cases, it seemed better to do nothing. Whatever we might have wished to do to relieve ourselves of guilt over the past could have resulted in more hurt for those to whom we wished to make amends. In other cases, we might never have found ways to make amends.

“What if the husband, wife, father, mother, child or friend was no longer there to receive the amends we were longing to make? There was a comforting alternative: In learning to think of others, to consider their feelings and well-being, taking conscious care to be thoughtful and generous, we could equate our growth in the program to the amends we could not make to those who were gone. The process of loving remembrance served as a reminder of what we wanted to be, how we wanted to relate to everyone in our lives. Little by little, this remembering helped us to do better each day.”

The poet Thomas Hardy expresses this in the first verse of “A Broken Appointment”:
     You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake.
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
    You did not come.

Another obstacle is the desire to tell a different story. The poet Mark Strand expresses this in the third part of “The Next Time”:

     It could have been another story, the one that was meant
     Instead of the one that happened. Living like this,

     Hoping to revise what has been false or rendered
     Is not what we wanted. Believing that the intended story

     Would have been like a day in the west when everything
     Is tirelessly present–the mountains casting their long

     Over the valley where the wind sings its circular tune
     And trees respond with a dry clapping of leaves–was overly

     Simple no doubt, and short-sighted. For soon the leaves,
     Having gone black, would fall, and the annulling snow

     Would pillow the walk, and we, with shovels in hand, would

     Bow, and scrape the sidewalk clean. What else would there

     This late in the day for us but desire to make amends
     And start again, the sun’s compassion as it disappears.

In our rollbacks, we’ve often found the release of past failures eased by recounting what we wanted to see happen, by telling our preferred story. This isn’t a matter of rewriting history – we accept that what happened, happened. It’s a matter of honoring our intentions and dreams, grieving for their loss, and looking for the ways and reasons history diverged from the story we wanted to tell. In his “Ender” series, the author Orson Scott Card creates a social role called “the Speaker for the Dead”. The Speaker tells the story of an individual’s life from multiple perspectives – the life perceived by family members, community, “history”, but also the life described in the individual’s dreams and in the dreams and expectations of those who influenced his or her life. The implicit role of the Speakers for the Dead is to provide reconciliation, at least within the confines of the story they construct, among the many stories about the individual, with special emphasis on “what is false or has been rendered unreadable”. In this way, those who listen to the Speaker can cease their own efforts to rewrite the individual’s life; they can lay the past to rest.   [back]

Another obstacle is the desire for fairness. Accounting provides another interpretation of the phrase “closing the book”. I can imagine that I have a book that contains, not a conventional life story, but a ledger of energies that have flowed into and out of my life, of the hurts I’ve caused and the injuries I’ve received, of my successes and failures, of praise and blame. I can imagine “keeping score” over some period of time. “Closing the book” on that period then means clearing the ledger, paying off my outstanding debts (or declaring bankruptcy, or arranging to roll them over into the next period), writing off bad investments and debts.

In traditional monotheism, God can also be viewed as the Keeper of the Master Account, against which all others must be reconciled. By reconciling our individual and communal books against the Master Account, we reconcile them with one another. On a psychospiritual basis, interpersonal reconciliation is facilitated by God’s mercy or grace. That grace can make up the difference between the injury you experienced and the amends I can make. My intention to make amends calls God’s grace into your life, enabling you to forgive me. This provides a solution to two of the fundamental problems of making amends: differences in the experience of the injury (I recognize that I did something harmful, but if the same thing happened to me I wouldn’t think it was all that awful), and the fact that no amount of individual effort can compensate for some injuries.

On a community basis, reconciliation between individuals and between the community and its members is facilitated by synergy. The community as a whole has resources beyond the sum of its members’ resources. The Jewish tradition includes the idea of the sabbatical and Jubilee years. Every seventh year is a sabbatical year in which fields are left fallow; every seventh seventh year is a Jubilee Year in which all debts are cancelled. In effect, the community redistributes its wealth. This is possible because the community has hidden surplus – the surplus provided by synergy. The Jubilee Year is a communal enactment, on a material or financial level, of the surplus of mercy or grace that God provides on a spiritual level.

What if you don’t believe in God as Keeper of the Master Account? Well, synergy within a community still works. And the experience of grace doesn’t mandate any specific cosmology.

Atheists sometimes claim that “God” is simply a mask for whomever is wielding the authority in a religious community. But you don’t have to believe in the reality of God to recognize the objectivity of a God-character within a believing community. Consider, as an analogy, Spock from Star Trek, who we can all agree is a fictional character. Paramount owns the copyright on Spock, so in some sense they can make Spock do or say whatever they want. But Spock has a certain degree of objective existence in the minds of the fan community. If Paramount isn’t faithful to the character, legions of fans will look up at the image on the movie screen and say, “No. That isn’t what Spock would do or say. They got it wrong.” In the same way, the authorities of religious community may claim whatever they want about what God says or wants or requires. But the character of God has an objective existence in the minds of the members of the community. The community will know if the authorities get it wrong. [back]

What might we do as a church community or as individuals in community? Lerner provides a vision for the community as well:

“Self-scrutiny is not for individuals only. The religious community as a whole needs to meet during the ten days of repentance and to discuss its own functioning and direction. Has the community really embodied its highest values? Has it really been sensitive to the pains of its members, and to the pain and suffering that continue in the larger world? Has the community used [its religion] merely as a way to ‘feel good’, or has it been engaged in the nuts and bolts of social and political action to transform the world? Are the nice sentiments matched with serious action?

“Eventually Jewish-renewal communities will seek to bring together the entire Jewish community in a given city to engage in similar questioning during the ten days of repentance. And that model might eventually become a model for secular society as well.”

This is a powerful vision, but does not provide us with an implementable process. That’s just as well. I don’t believe we can have a single process. The forthcoming Leadership Training program will be useful to some. The Cottage Meetings have a broader scope, but do provide some amount of communal self-scrutiny. Many a committee, in its meetings and in retreats, can seek a process that works for it. But ultimately, I believe we are individually responsible for reflecting, assessing, acknowledging hurts caused and received, amends-making, revisioning, and renewal.

It is particularly painful to be hurt by someone’s words or actions when they can be construed as speaking or acting for the community. I alone can tell whether someone’s words or actions wound me; for that person (or for the community on whose behalf I believe they spoke or acted) to make amends, I have to tell someone I’ve been hurt. Sometimes I should tell the person who hurt me. Sometimes I’m better off asking the counsel of another person in the community. Together, we can work on a strategy for helping me to feel comfortable remaining in community with the individual who hurt me. That individual may never make amends personally, but if someone else in the community ministers to me, the community has made amends, and my relationship with it can continue.

I can’t always tell when I’ve hurt someone. As a general rule, I hope those I’ve injured will tell me, and provide me with an opportunity to make amends. But sometimes, particularly when I’ve taken on a challenging task or assumed a role about which I have mixed feelings, I experience the news that I’ve hurt someone as an additional burden, as an injury to myself. One benefit of being part of a community is that I can turn to others to express that hurt, rather than reflecting it back on the news-bearer (who may well be the person I injured).